I kind of hesitate to write this post because I really am not writing this for sympathy, though I know it may come across that way. But I know scars can only do any good when they’re shown as a symbol of hope and survival, so I write this for everyone who is where I am and was where I have been, anyone for whom it might be a glimmer of hope.
Because I know how alone it feels to be afraid.
It feels so stupid to have riding nerves, doesn’t it? It’s so easy to believe that nobody else feels the way you do. That there’s something wrong with you that other people just don’t have wrong with them. Maybe you’re just not cut out for riding, maybe you just can’t. That doesn’t seem like such a big deal unless it’s your living. Your calling. A part of you. Something you’re on fire for. People my age so often complain that they don’t know what they want to do. Is there any worse agony than to know what you want to do and be unable to do it for a reason as humiliating as fear?
It’s not just nerves. Everyone has nerves. Nerves are the little buzz I feel at shows; an added sharpness that can develop into tension if not managed. No, this is fear, borderline phobic. It’s paralytic. I come down to that fence and I can’t move or think. I freeze and mess up, and that makes it worse, over and over again.
I have screamed why. I have been sobbing on my knees begging to know why God would give me such a burning passion and such a debilitating handicap. Why can’t I be like the other riders I see floating over 1.20, 1.30? I’m willing to bet some of them haven’t ever taught a horse a thing but here I am, the horse trainer – a good one, too – freezing to the base of 70cm jumps. Through me God has fixed horses that you couldn’t touch, trained remedial buckers to dance, breathed the light back into the eyes of the broken. Why won’t He help me jump this fence?
It’s jumping, mostly. Young horses, even hacking are OK. Not as OK as I look; the silent battle remains – but OK enough that I can enjoy it and do it well. But jumping…
Today’s jumping exercise in my lesson with coach K was just a vertical of about 75cm, sharp right turn to a slightly bigger oxer, six strides to another oxer. I put up that kind of stuff in my lessons every day. I buried poor old Al so many times that eventually even he stopped. I was using every single trick I know to calm myself down and it wasn’t working.
Coach K is worth her weight in gold; she figured me out and remains endlessly patient. But from where I’m sitting, jumping 85cm on a horse I don’t know in my exam is looking like a very, very big ask.
I went home feeling exhausted from the battle. There’s just never a respite from it, no riding situation in which that dark clouds lifts completely. It’s so heavy sometimes and I couldn’t understand why.
Until this afternoon when I was helping my own little student with the very, very bad nerves. And I had to argue with him to let me put the lead on when we went for a little hack. And when I took him for his first little trot, he didn’t panic and squeal the way he used to when we just lifted him onto the pony. No. He laughed. He laughed and a smile burst over his little face like a sunrise.
And I could almost hear God saying, This is why.
He could lift this struggle from me. He could make this cup to pass away from me, but He leaves me to drink it because He’s got a plan. I don’t take it lightly when I say that God has made me a good coach for nervous riders. I can help them because I am them. I’ve been there and I know they can’t help it, they can’t just get over it magically. But I can help them get over it. Step by tiny step.
So I’ll drink that cup to the very dregs.
I still hate the struggle. I’m still so tired of it. But I know I have to bear it for a reason, so I pray, Not as I will but as Thou wilt. Tomorrow I’ll shoulder the cross and march on and share the truth about the struggle because it can help someone. There will be haters who’ll think a nervous rider can’t be a good one. They will be wrong. I make a living out of something that terrifies me – that has to stand for something.
And one by one, I’ll watch my riders blossom. And with each one, I’ll continue to hope that someday, that might be me, too.
We leave for Pre-HOY tomorrow and I’m terrified, for the dumbest reason.
I’m not worried about boxing nine horses there and back – I trust the drivers. I’m not worried about the horses – they know their jobs. I’m not worried about the kids – they’ve worked hard. I’m not even that worried that Exavior will knock my brains out (OK, so I’m a bit worried about that, not gonna lie).
Oh, no. I’m worried about what they will think.
I’m so worried about what they will think when Exavior loses his brain and pulls away from me and kicks the judge or something. She can’t handle him. She’s no horsewoman.
Or what about when somebody notices how scuffed my saddle is, or how the girth really doesn’t match either the saddle or the horse? What does she know? She’s such a newbie.
Or when everything dissolves into chaos and I arrive in my class with my collar sticking up and Midas galloping about with his nose sky high? She’s not good enough to be a trainer!
And you know, all of the above could quite probably be true. It could be impostor syndrome or it could be sense or whatever because right now I don’t really care. Because I don’t know what they think or how it’s gonna go on Saturday or whether or not I’m coming home with my brains in my head (although that would be nice).
Here’s what I do know, and these are the truths I will hold up like a shield against any fear or doubt that tries to come between my kids and horses and calling and me.
God made me yard manager. He wants me where I am. I gave my life to Him and this is where He’s put me so by His power in me I’m gonna get this done.
I’m nineteen years old. I’m showing horses I produced, and kids I teach on ponies I produced, against some of the top riders in the country. My best horse was for free. My most promising youngster should have been dead twice over by now. Our yard has faced outbreaks and financial crisis and more drama in a year than some yards deal with in a lifetime and we’re still here, nineteen-year-old wet-behind-the-ears manager and all.
So they can think whatever they want. We’ll be late and our ponies will act up and our kids might spill Coke on their cream breeches (just kidding, that’s my signature move, they’re generally more sensible) and maybe Xave will rear and run away too but we’ll SHINE. God got us here for just one reason: to shine for Him. For our King Jesus, we will shine. We’ll keep our eyes on Him and we will shine.
We arrived at Sunlands only moderately late, which was rather impressive given that the wheels had fallen off on the way there. Literally.
Okay, so it was only one wheel, and so there were still two very precarious wheelnuts holding it on, but it was the closest I would ever like to come, thank you very much. We limped the last ten kilometres, with the Mutterer and I both eyeballing the wobbling wheel in the rearview mirror, and made it on a wing and a prayer. Also literally.
Once there we unloaded the motley crew: Lancelot for his first outing at ground poles, Zorro and his kid (let’s call her Z-kid) for 60 and 70cm, working student K and her Nooitie mare Renè, and Magic. The latter was eye-poppingly nervous and spooking wildly at nothing, his adrenalin absolutely sky high and my heart correspondingly low. It looked like another disaster was imminent, but I had zero intention of clocking up yet another rider fall this year and had basically decided to just hack in the warmup until his brain came back.
Turns out God decided to use this for good, as usual. Instead of a disaster, my ride was an epiphany.
I have always been looking for the magic solution (no pun intended) to Mr. Quirkypants’s panic attacks. Always looking for a trigger or a quick fix or just some reliable way to talk him down off his ledge. Never finding it, I’ve always had to resort to just walking him and staying calm until he got calm. And on this day I stumbled across two facts that I am just stoked to finally know:
Magic’s trigger is not a sight or sound, it’s a state of mind. Usually mine.
Magic’s fix is not an exercise or a gadget… it’s a state of mind. Usually mine.
I breathed him down. I always try to settle myself before working on the horse, but when I got myself settled, he was miraculously settled! A rudimentary principle I suppose, but I have just never seen it so dramatically before.
So I got myself back and then he came back and we jumped all clear rounds for third in the 70cm. Here’s jump-off video! We even angled a fence!!
Zorro and Z-kid had a superb show. At his last one he had two eliminations and I was ready to wring his neck for him but I must apologise to him because he hasn’t run out, not once, since the chiro saw him and put about a gazillion bones back into alignment. Sorry Zorro.
This show he was totally on his game despite last competing in April. They won the 60 and were well on their way to winning the 70 when during the jump-off one of the Z-kid’s stirrups came flying off. The stirrup bar was faulty and the whole thing just popped right off and klonked poor Zorro in the knees. They were halfway over the first element of a combination but Z-kid didn’t even wobble and rode the second element with one stirrup and great poise, to applause from the audience. They had to retire, but on the bright side I now have an awesome story to tell the kids when they don’t want to do no-stirrups.
In between all this I was also riding Lancelot in the ground poles. He boxed, travelled, waited and behaved like a superstar; I had like two and a half seconds to warm up in a teensy arena with a thousand tiny kids on schoolies, but he was right there with me. Nervous and sticky of course but listening. His first round was rather halting and wiggly, but he trotted the second one very happily with only one enormous steering glitch. For a spooky Arab, I’ll take it any day!
K and Renè had their first outing too but Renè is a Nooitie so she came out completely chilled and babysat Lancelot. They just pottered through their ground poles without turning a hair even though poor old Renè has jumped exactly one fence in her life and never been ridden at a show before.
With Bruno and Lancelot being well started, nevertheless I haven’t run out of unbacked babies. I have a queue of starters waiting for me (two Appaloosas, an Arab, a rather interesting crossbred, a Welsh pony and Exavior himself – and those are just the ones actually at the yard) but I have only so many rides in me every week, so right now I’m working on two of the loveliest grey ladies in the world.
This is Olive, our first draft at the yard. She is a bit of a crossbred but there is a whole lot of Percheron there, which makes her fluffy and huge with extra helpings of adorable. She arrived in June with only very basic work done – a bit of halter training and a lot of friendliness towards people – and has made good progress.
True to draft form, she is the sweetest thing on four legs, which has made her trainable despite not being the sharpest knife in the drawer. We started out with basic lunging, where she proved much more forward-going than I expected of such a big floof,
and now we have moved on to the roller and desensitisation and pressure-release exercises and finally, weight. (Although I don’t think my mass compared to Olive’s can really be called “weight”.)
As expected from a homebred, she was pretty cool about being desensitised and not bad about weight. It took a few sessions for her to stop mouthing the bit incessantly, but I finally reverted to an old trick I learned from the Mutterer (AKA king of starting youngsters) and just left her in the round pen with the bridle on for half an hour. With all her brainpower free to figure out this new question, she was relaxed about it by the time I returned and we haven’t had a hitch since.
The second starter is the drop-dead-gorgeous Quinni.
Quinni is impeccably bred, with some of the best Nooitgedachter blood in history blended with her Anglo-Arab sire to create one of the nicest young horses I have ever seen. She is drool-worthy from her impressive size and conformation to her wonderful floatiness. Add in a dash of cuteness, a high IQ and a darling personality, and you have me sold.
Sadly for me, although I am casually on the lookout for a fancy dressage horse, I am broke and Quinni is older than what I was looking for. Also, her owner is set on keeping her for a broodmare, a decision which I wildly applaud. Lots of baby Quinnis running around can only be a good thing.
This has not prohibited me from enjoying my time with her. We had a bit of a sticky start when she came down with a horrific acute biliary, but she’s a fighter and kicked that bug with a vengeance. I had started her on the lunge and popped a saddle on her at her breeder’s, so she bounced back quickly from her illness and waltzed through her groundwork without apparent effort. The horse is naturally balanced, intelligent, eager to please and sensitive – what more could you ask for? I was expecting a little fireworks when I sat on her the first time, as she does have that sensitive streak that can cause issues during starting, but I needn’t have worried. Her first three rides were among the easiest I have ever had on a baby.
After getting thrown from Dirkie last year I truly thought it would be more than a year before I pulled myself together enough to get back on a baby, especially a bigger baby like these two. But of course, God is faithful and the power of Christ is in me.
[Side note: I will write a brief recap of June at some point, I really will. Bad blogger! But for today, here’s some drivel that’s been floating around in my head for a while.]
My own riding has me a little disheartened lately. I have never been the most confident rider or someone that finds riding easy, but I have always been ambitious. And lately, that’s led to a whole lot of disappointment.
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t trying my guts out to get better at this. I was the kid that was forever drawing pictures of her first pony winning the Olympics. I’ve had goals and plans and lofty dreams all my life; since I was seven years old I would watch the pros on TV, then close my eyes and picture me riding that perfect 1.60m course or Grand Prix freestyle on old Skye. I want it so bad I can taste it. It’s not really about the victory, I just have this craving to be so good at it. I really want to feel what it’s like to ride a 10 for a half-pass. I really want to go double clear at 4* with the grace of a dancer. And I’ve been working for that since I can remember. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t riding at least 6 days a week, and since I was 12, that’s been multiple horses a day. That’s a lot of saddle time and a lot of blood and sweat and tears, and all I have on my show record is one grading point at Novice, one at 70cm, and one at EV70. I have been eliminated repeatedly and dramatically in every discipline I ride in with the exception of dressage, and I know that’s only a matter of time. The only graded classes I’ve won have been ones where I was the only one that showed up, barring one, where my 8-year-old was competing against a real greenie. It’s not exactly the kind of show record you expect from a trainer, much less a coach. Horse riding takes years, this I know, but at every show I see juniors and pony riders doing medium and 1.20m and EV100 and they’re winning.
The last thing I can blame is the horses, because I have some really, really incredible horses. These horses have more scope and talent than I do, and they try their courageous hearts out for me.
And that is kind of discouraging sometimes because I have many shortcomings, but lack of drive is not one of them. Every year, I ride more horses, I take more lessons. I ride when I’m sick and hurting, I ride in the rain and the cold, I get back on over and over. For the last six months of 2015, I have 569 sessions recorded in my logbook, and I ride a lot more now than I did then. I did my stint as a working student and I did my share of falling off wild ponies for peanuts. I have never quit on riding, not once; the longest I have gone in my memory without riding has been two weeks – the two weeks that Magic was sick. And sometimes it’s like it’s just not achieved anything. And that was so painful and confusing. I keep wanting to ask God what I did wrong. Why hasn’t He taken me up the grades? What have I missed? Where did I mess up? Is this not His plan for me after all? Why don’t I have anything to show for it on paper?
And God said, “I wasn’t looking on paper, daughter.”
He opened my eyes to what really matters and it hasn’t been the destination or the dreams I’ve been chasing. It’s been the things that matter to Him, the things He has been calling me to all this time, this time that I’ve been trying to follow His light through the dark glass of my own ambition.
Because looking back, the changes in my horses’ training and ability haven’t been huge. But the changes in their minds and emotions? They have been enormous.
When I got this horse he was relatively fresh off the track, but he could walk and trot and canter and whoa and go and turn and pop over little crosses. Almost four years later, he’s doing 70cm with mixed results. You know how long it takes a pro to take a baby off the track to 70cm? We’re not even using the same calendar here.
But when I got him he was also a hypersensitive, neurotic creature you couldn’t sneeze near or his brain would exit stage left. You literally could not move your hands too fast or he’d jump up in the air like you’d hit him with a cattle prodder. He was anxious to box, he was anxious to saddle, he didn’t tie up, and his frequent and relentless panic attacks would have him a trembling, eye-rolling, lip-poking, leaping mess for an incredible amount of time. If something set him off, he’d literally be highly strung for days afterwards – days. He wasn’t just a silly baby off the track, he had horse PTSD. When his switch flipped, you could forget it, you weren’t getting him back that day. Maybe not even the next.
You know he’s now one of the quietest horses to handle at the yard? You can park him wherever, chuck his lead rein over his neck and he’ll just stand there looking adorable while you flap around looking for his boots. He ties up. He loads like a charm. He travels perfectly. He doesn’t hide from rain anymore, he runs and bucks and plays in it. He is just this giant happy puppy dog of a horse. Magic still has his edge, he’ll always have his edge. Like humans, horses get some scars that won’t ever heal perfectly. He still has all the same triggers and they still set him off just as quickly, but I can talk him down off his ledge in minutes. Minutes. Yesterday we had an off-site lesson and something set him off and he stopped at this 20cm cavaletti and I ate a little dirt, but I got back on him and in 30 minutes we were jumping the biggest fences we’ve ever done off property. He was so happy. He was just cruising. And I am his anchor. Nobody else in the world right now would have gotten him back so quickly, nobody else can ride him like I can. And it’s not that I’m a good rider. I’m not even a good trainer and I’m really no good at baby racehorses. But I am the world’s leading authority on Magic because I really truly care about him and that’s turned him right around. Magic does not care that we’re only doing 70cm. Magic cares that his spinning world has stilled. Magic cares about cookies and ear rubs and that I never, ever push him past what he can’t handle, even if that means we’ll do 70cm until I’m 40.
Magic cares about the love in me, and we all know that the other name for love is God. And if you put it like that, I’d take it over A-grade any day.
He hasn’t been the only one. Arwen was a promising but unbacked two-year-old. She is now a nine-year-old that gets extravagantly eliminated at EV70. But she was also a skittish, insecure, lazy, excessively herdbound filly. Now she is a wonderful, confident, enthusiastic fireball of a horse that loves galloping away from home on outrides and kicking the butts of anyone who thinks they can stop her.
Nell was hypersensitive, resistant, and amazingly spooky. Her first dressage tests are a long string of 3’s and 4’s with comments like “tense” and “very uncertain”. Now she comes down that centreline like she owns it and judges call her “obedient” and “willing”.
There have been still more. Horses you couldn’t touch, now shoving their noses into your hands, asking for attention. Horses that leaned on all your aids, wringing their tails with frustration, now stepping forward with an easy, swinging, enthusiastic stride. Horses that were so tense they had their ears up your nostrils and jumped at every touch, now packing nervy kids around at shows.
My horses are not particularly well-schooled horses. I am not “one to watch”. I am not the next Charlotte Dujardin or Monty Roberts. But after enough of my work, my horses are really, really happy, healthy, relaxed, enthusiastic, confident horses. They love their work.
One of Nell’s first dressage tests, when she was jumping like a gazelle and my heart was sitting somewhere in my boots, holds the greatest compliment I have ever received as a rider. “Empathetically ridden.” And I have my impatient days, but I do everything I can to understand these most wonderful of God’s creatures.
I don’t think it matters to the Olympic committee, or to anyone that reads my show record, or to prospective clients. None of the top riders I see at shows notice me for it and it definitely doesn’t win me any ribbons. But it matters to me, it matters to the horses, and it sure matters to God.
So yeah, I would still love to ride Grand Prix and I’m still going to work hard and dream and God willing someday a happy athlete will carry me down the centreline at a collected canter. But mostly, I’m just going to love my horses and my people. Jesus loves when I do that, and it’s the only thing I can do that has any real consequence. All the rest is just fluff. And fluff is cool, but it’s still just fluff.
I love my horses. Nobody can ever take that away from me. And for God, that’s enough. So right now, I’m deciding that it’s enough for me, too.
“Stop that,” the Mutterer opined, “and get back on the freaking horse.”
It was a year after I had started leasing Magic and we were having a tough lesson. The combination we were jumping was just big enough to make me nervous; I kept trying to make him jump the way I wanted, and he kept trying to please me and having to overjump his way out of trouble as a result. “Give him his head,” the Mutterer was bellowing. “Let him do his job.” Try as I might, I was just as green as the horse; even when my head said one thing my hands were still hauling back on his sensitive mouth, locked on the end of arms as tense as a high wire.
The horse was brilliant and beyond. But I couldn’t ride him the way he needed to be ridden. I wasn’t good enough for him.
“If you say that again,” said the Mutterer calmly, “I will kick your little butt to the other end of the arena.”
Facing this petrifying threat, I reluctantly hauled myself back onto the horse and we trotted back into that combination to fluff it again. And again. And again.
I can’t ride him right. He deserves better.
Magic felt my negative tension getting worse with every stride, and escalated accordingly. He approached the tiny 60cm oxer with his neck getting higher and longer every time his hooves hammered the floor. Once he got there, I hauled back, desperately wanting the deeper spot. Magic knew he would bring us both to the ground if he took the deeper spot so he jumped anyway, like a gazelle, popping me up out of the tack. I landed on his neck. He bolted, terrified. For the sixth time that day.
I’m going to ruin this horse. I don’t deserve him.
“Lord Jesus, I don’t deserve him, but please, I don’t want to lose him.”
It was the fifth day straight of seeing the terrifying agony in the horse’s eyes. He swayed in the horsebox, head hanging low, sweat drenching the coat that was now pulled tight over his bony frame. I pressed my forehead against his brow; he was burning up. “Come on, buddy. Keep fighting.” He rolled a great brown eye to me and it was filled with fire. He wasn’t going to quit. And I, swaying with him, filled with his agony, sleep deprived beyond expression and sick with tension, wasn’t going to quit either.
“I know I don’t deserve him, but I love him. Lord, save him, if it’s Your will.”
“You got this, buddy.”
He cantered through the start with four feet coming down like a waltz, with giant muscles lifting and dancing underneath me. First fence; he had a little look, but I gave my hands forward and he took it in that easy leap that only he has. The course rolled by underneath him until we reached the bending line to the one-stride combination. He saw the long spot; so did I, but I was sure we wouldn’t make the stride if we took it; I reacted before I could think and pulled. It was a mistake. He launched himself into the air, landing so hard we both grunted with the impact, and the next element was right under his nose. I scrambled, grabbed mane, managed only to make a feeble little clicking noise and he bailed us both out. We thundered off, disunited and in a complete mess, but the last fence was still waiting. I braced a fist against his neck, shoved myself back into the saddle and sat up. “The Lord is my Shepherd!” And we floated down to the last fence with his dizzying grace, cleared it without a second thought.
I fell on his neck, intentionally this time, and hugged him. The pure, sleek curve of muscle flexed in my arms, powerful as a breaking wave. “Thank you, buddy. I could never deserve you.” I sat up, rubbed gloved knuckles across the satiny coat; my horse’s whole frame lit up with pleasure, dancing forward. And it’s true: I don’t deserve him. But who could ever deserve half a ton of power and spirit, submitting itself to your foolish whim? Who could ever deserve a heart so mighty, yet so willing to beat in time with yours? I don’t deserve him, but nobody deserves horses.
So I’ll probably never take him to A-grade even though he could take those heights in his stride. So it’s unlikely he’ll ever be ridden to his fullest potential. Magic dances when I touch him, bails me out when I fail; Magic is the horse I didn’t quit on and he doesn’t care that I don’t ride him well enough.
I don’t deserve him, but if you know God, you know it’s not about deserving.
Due to life being insane, weekends being booked, and me catching flu the day before a planned outing, I haven’t been anywhere with horses since the dressage training show in mid-June. I really wanted to get back into the show ring before a showing show with the Nooitgedachters in two weeks’ time and then graded eventing in early September, so I pounced on the first open weekend and enthusiastically entered a jumping training show. With three horses. So what if I’m only just used to riding two horses at a show? I had to try sometime, and I figured that if things got too hectic and our emotional states started deteriorating, I’d just scratch. It was only a training show.
Hence for the first time I actually had more than two horses in our box, so I didn’t look like a total idiot turning up in a giant aluminium four-berth with one small pony in it. Loading was quite interesting; we had more than an hour’s drive and I was in the first class, so by 6am we were shoving reluctant equines into the box in the dark. Arwen was a horrible influence on Magic; she had to be bodily pushed up the ramp before she agreed to go in, so Magic decided he’d try that too. Luckily Magic does not sit down on people and ignore them the way Arwen does, so he was a bit quicker to get in. We were ten minutes late and Dad was already frustrated and tired when we turned to Vastrap, but that dear little horse plugged up the ramp and then rolled his eyes at the babies (Arwen digging a hole in the floor, Magic neighing frantically) and pulled at his haynet. Thank goodness for sweet little white Nooities.
They travelled more or less all right; Arwen removed her halter about ten minutes in (don’t ask me how), and Magic did his usual head-flipping thing all the way to the show, breaking his lead rein and scraping his nose and foreleg in the process. Considering he’s Magic, I won’t complain. At least he didn’t rear or hang a leg over the partition or any of the other awful things that seem to happen to Magic. (Vastrap, of course, stood quietly and ate hay).
We arrived at 7:40, so I thought I would at least have a little breathing space to get to my first class, but as soon as I got out I heard the announcer: “This is the bell to open the 40cm course for walking.” Cue absolute pandemonium. I bellowed at my sister Rainy to go and find Magic’s calmer, e. g. an unlucky friend who happens to be amazing at keeping Magic happy at shows and had hence been roped in to babysit him while I was riding the Nooities. Unfortunately, this left Dad and I alone with a box full of hyper horses, and obviously Vastrap was right in the back and so had to be unloaded last. (I think Magic and Arwen would have self destructed left to their own devices anyway).
By some miracle, Magic’s bestie arrived, Arwen’s lead was flung at Rain, Vastrap was dragged out and had his stuff strapped on, and we were only slightly late to the class. Thankfully, the show organisers were extraordinarily patient, tolerant and understanding of this crazy person that had entered three horses in three classes each of the first five classes. (I had one in 40cm, two in 50cm, three in 60cm, two in 70cm and one in 80cm; I’m sure they must have had nightmares afterwards). Poor Vastrap was totally ungroomed and had hardly gotten off the box when I was on him and walking to the warmup. Once again, thank goodness for sweet little white (sort of; he was a bit yellow and had hay in his hair) Nooities. The poor animal had about 10 minutes’ warmup before I booted him into the arena and learned the following three things:
It is possible to jump a nice clear round without having had any idea of where any of the jumps are when you rode in.
Fourways builds awesome courses.
I didn’t even get the chance to see the course ridden, let alone walk it, but I found my way just fine and dear old Trappies didn’t think twice about anything. He just said, “Yes, ma’am” and jumped everything I pointed him at unquestioningly.
And this continued to be Vastrap’s mentality throughout the show. He didn’t spook at a thing, he contentedly stood and ate hay between classes, he happily put up with being yanked into the arena with half a warmup when I was running out of time between other horses, and he jumped three clear rounds without turning a hair. That pony is worth his weight in solid gold. I kind of feel guilty that I’m not 12 years old and nervous, because then I’d deserve him better. But still, he is amazing and I love him to bits. I am going to have to find a way to bribe Mom to half lease him to me, because I need a schoolie like that.
Vastrap’s only mistakes happened as we were warming up for the 60cm jump-off. He was getting a little up and excited, nothing naughty, but he ran at an oxer and threw in one of his rare dirty little stops. Those dirty stops are my fault since the time I catapulted up his neck and ate his face (and then the fence at me) rattled him quite badly, and he stopped twice more before I finally came to my senses and left his face alone and he jumped fine. We were already late so then we ran into the jump off and went enthusiastically clear. He’s an absolute jewel. We just need to work on his habit of running at the fences like that – longer strides, buddy, not just faster legs. (And stay out of his face).
Magic was in 50cm, 60cm, and 70cm, and there were only four horses in the 50cm class. Since two of them were mine, this was a bit chaotic and I had horrible visions of me riding a brain-evaporated Magic into the class. Magic normally leads at least 45 minutes of slow work at a show in order to scrape his brain off the floor and put it back into his head. Well, we had about 20. My stomach was doing slow little somersaults when I got on, but wonder of wonders, I got onto a grownup horse that knew what he was supposed to do.
It was a subtle but important difference from the Magic I climbed onto at our end May show. Magic never, ever sets out to hurt someone, and at the shows he’s done, he’s been confused and terrified and ready to blow up but never malicious. This show, he was worried, a bit stressy, and a bit spooky… but he knew what he was supposed to do. When I asked him for a trot he didn’t go AAARGHREGOHUEHOHOWEHROEWHTOR, he said, “Mom, I’m terrified! But okay, this means trot” and did as he was told. I only had three or four laps of trot before I sat and asked for canter and he flowed straight into his gorgeous easy canter with his head down and his brain on. When I turned him to the itty bitty little cross, he didn’t do his usual trick of tiptoeing towards it and then overjumping majestically. I had him in a trot, but with a soft allowing hand, so he popped in a little canter stride as he got there and then hopped over. A little extravagantly, but nothing like his old wild springbuck leaping.
My horse knew what he was doing. He was scared, but he was okay. And so was I. Sometimes I swear we hold up mirrors to each other, because we had exactly the same frame of mind: We were both worried, we were both a little frightened, and we were both spookier than was necessary, but we knew that we knew what we were doing. So we did it, worried and all. And my beautiful courageous grey gelding jumped every single fence he saw without ever offering a stop. Everything else was terrifying, obviously, necessitating huge spooks at other horses, flowerpots, photographers, the gate (the gate was evil), dogs, and his own rosette, but he didn’t spook at a single jump. The first jump on the 50 and 60cm courses had a white latticey gate under it, and a couple of the oxers had planks in them or wings, but he didn’t care. He just jumped, because he knew that that was what he had to do. Magic is starting to find solace in his work, and to make jumping his comfort zone, just like Arwen did at the start.
I was so happy with him. Apart from one lazy pole in the warmup arena, he jumped everything cleanly. Sure, we took a few dodgy distances, awkward leaps and overjumps (though not as bad as at his last show), but I’ll take it for a young horse ridden by a total newb to thoroughbreds. Best of all, he stayed relaxed, for Magic. I don’t think Magic will ever have the dragonslaying attitude of Arwen or the workaday approach of Vastrap. Life is just too scary for him to be that bombproof and quiet, but for a horse that spooks so easily, he is very brave. I don’t mind. Magic is Magic and that’s just fine by me.
Still, his 70cm class was markedly calmer than last time. Mostly, of course, because I actually gave him a release over the jumps (our partnership has improved alongside his confidence), but also because he’s just got more miles under his girth now. He did overjump a few fences if I got him to a poor distance – including doing a rather interesting midair manoevre over the second element of a combination; somehow Magic is able to climb stairs in thin air – but he was sane and ready to go to work.
The only real meltdown he had was about having a ribbon attached to his head and then having to trot around the arena with it on. We jumped a whole invisible course, then performed a Grand Prix dressage test worthy of Valegro, finishing off with a handful of airs above the ground that Podhajsky would have been proud of. But this is the good part – it was funny. Sure, I was quite glad when his ribbon flew off and I had an excuse to get both feet on solid earth again, but my spine wasn’t melting and I wasn’t shaking when I had to get back on him. Just as Magic felt like a frightened horse that nevertheless had plenty of talent and knew his job, instead of a confused and terrified greenie, I felt like a young rider with a lot of horse under her that was riding him tolerably well and learning how to ride him better. Not like an overhorsed, petrified beginner.
The other majorly spooky object was an odd little thatch thing standing by the gate, which I assume was a wing or something, but Magic said it was terrifying and tiptoed past it. Arwen, upon entering the arena for the first time, took advantage of my loose rein and reassuring hand and took a gigantic bite out of it. Mortified, I just sat there as she walked off thanking the organisers for considerately supplying a pre-class snack.
That was basically Arwen’s attitude for the whole show. I was already flustered and tired when I got on her for the 60cm, but I couldn’t help grinning when I asked her to walk on. When Arwen walks into the warmup she owns it. She was yelling, “Let’s do this thing!” and I was with her.
She aimed a few merry kicks at some thoroughbreds (luckily letting none of them fly), almost crushed somebody’s luckless trainer (to my great embarrassment) and jumped everything unquestioningly. We blasted into and through our 60cm class, both of us having an absolute ball. On the photos later I would realise that Arwen was jumping with quite… interesting technique (in one picture she’s taking off for an oxer with both hind feet on the ground, but both forelegs flung out straight… I don’t even know). Luckily, this is showjumping. Nobody cares. We won. Arwen beamed at the pony that came second and luckily refrained from bucking in the victory gallop.
The 70cm class was a one-round speed competition on quite an open course, so obviously my fat pony came second and my thoroughbred was nearly dead last. Arwen once again had the course for dinner and was beaten only by an experienced thoroughbred with a good rider. She felt like kicking him in the lineup but I applied a diplomatic spur to her guts and she thought better of it. Victory laps on Arwen are awesome, especially when the winner let her horse blast off at a mildly inconsiderate speed; while the crowd held their breath in anticipation of Arwen’s bucking fit, she genteelly obeyed her French link snaffle and lined out in her rhythmic cross-country gallop all around the arena, flaunting her blue ribbon and informing the crowd that in America it would have meant she had won. And as we reached the gate, I brought her down to walk and threw my reins down and she stretched to the floor. No, you can’t have her, sorry.
80cm was no longer a game: I really wanted to jump clear in this class, and Arwen was on her A-game, so I was ready to ask her for it and ride my best. It was a fairly demanding course, with a couple of related distances and a two-stride combination (Arwen’s nemesis; in a 6-stride line she has space to add for seven strides, but a two-stride is just too short for three and just too long for two), as well as at least two max height oxers, but she was as brave as the day. I concentrated hard on using my inside leg to flex her around the turns so that she came to the jumps straight and balanced, and the team effort paid off; we went clear.
Unfortunately, by the jump-off, my energy and concentration were leaving me and I was giddy on our previous success. I forgot that my inside leg even existed and poor Arwen was asked to jump the oxer at number seven from the most preposterous angle. She tried anyway and took the rail, but when I got her to a similar angle with even worse balance at number eight – an oxer and the first element of the double – she said, “Uh, human, hello??” and stopped. She really can’t be blamed for this, but accepted her bad luck at having me for a rider with good cheer; we circled around, I rode a better line, and she jumped it without a second glance. Then we accidentally jumped two extra fences because I forgot the course, but the organisers graciously let this slide.
We were an exhausted but happy bunch that trooped back up to the horsebox. Magic had, at one stage, pulled free of his bestie; but to everyone’s relief (and my pride) he ran two steps and then stood in the road looking confused while helpful bystanders tiptoed towards him. Magic’s bestie is a lifesaver. I can hardly express what a relief it is to take my poor, delicate, sensitive creature from someone and find him in an even better frame of mind than he was when I gave them to him.
My legs didn’t want to leg anymore, but luckily the horses all loaded and travelled well, so the day ended much better than it had began. It was a great day filled with amazing horses, awesome people, and of course the reason for all we do and the strength behind all we ever achieve – our beloved, magnificent, merciful Creator God. Glory to the King.
Ever since I tried to break in a large black stallion when I was twelve years old and relatively clueless, with the expected consequences, I’ve had nervousness issues. I suppose that no horseman can expect to grow, learn, or improve without going through various stages of horse-related fear, but that doesn’t make it any fun.
It’s quite easy to trace back my fears to that stallion; not that he was, in himself, a bad guy – in fact he was one of the sweetest stallions I’ve known and if I had him today, I’m quite confident I could train him without major trouble. But the green horse-green rider mix seldom works out (it did for me once, but it’s not a frequent occurrence) and add to that his massive size, my tiny size, and all his boy hormones and it didn’t end very well. In the end I did a little work on him and overcame the worst of his issues before selling him off in the middle of last year.
Today, similar horses or situations still come back to haunt me. Stallions are usually a bit of a trigger, but dear, patient, gentle, one-in-a-million Reed has more or less cured me of this one. Big horses were also an issue but then Thunder grew up to be the same height as his father (the black stallion), and with riding Sookie and the other warmbloods I just got used to it. Buckers were a problem, but there are so many horses that buck that eventually I was forced to learn to live with it or quit training young horses, and that’s something that I’m loathe to do.
Now the biggest problem that remains is a combination of the three: a big, bucking stallion is sure to scare me. And for a few weeks, one of the stud stallions fit this bill. Sixteen hands of pure magnificence, he makes the little horsecrazy girl inside me do cartwheels of ecstasy; only about four and a half years old, his hormones and excess energy occasionally get the better of his otherwise quite trainable mind. Add to this me being frightened of him bucking and frustrating him by holding him in whilst kicking him on, and we have an airborne horse and a desperate rider.
I was, in fact, right on the brink of handing him over to the Mutterer and admitting defeat. Even the Mutterer was starting to look a little scared on my behalf when the stallion was in a feisty mood, and it takes quite a lot to frighten the Mutterer. Then, one day as I was scrolling through Facebook (I know, I know, great source of wisdom) a quote jumped out at me:
“Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee.” Isaiah 41:10a
I realised, again, that giving in to fear is not an option – not for me. I can’t choose fear over love or dreams or God; I guess that every time I choose fear instead of courage, I play servant to Satan instead of subject to my King. For God has given us a spirit not of fear, but of power, of love, and of a sound mind; and we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us.
So I girded up my loins, saddled up the horse (even though part of me really didn’t want to) and he was absolutely foot perfect. Better than he’s ever been. And because I was looking at him with love and not fear, I saw him at his best; realised anew how beautiful the mighty arching curve of his neck in front of me is, how stunning his huge smooth strides are, and how special his spirit, pride, and strange sensitivity are. And for this reason I would argue that the opposite of fear is not faith, but love: to love is to let go of fear. I was too busy loving him to be afraid of him. Above all, I was too busy loving his Creator to do anything but trust in Him.
One small battle might be won but the war is far from over. At every ride I stand at the same fork in the road, faced with the same choice: Love or fear? And fear is such a broad and attractive and comfortable way to go. But the path to love is marked by the sign of a cross. And it’s that sign that I will follow from here to eternity.